Once upon a time, I was telling someone the story of how I got involved in the kind of global health work that I do. I finished my little explanation, and that person looked at me and said, “What about your parents? It seems like they had a lot to do with it.”
And that was absolutely true. My parents are pretty great. Neither are in medicine or doing work internationally, and so it may not be immediately obvious, but their core values have shaped the work of all of their children. I would summarize those values as: do something that helps people and work hard. Money, power, prestige – it was very clear they did not care about those things whatsoever. Help people and work hard – much more like it. Oh, and make music while you are at it.
My father, Tom Vreeman, is the CEO of a non-profit organization called Kandu Inc that provides employment opportunities to people with disabilities and other challenges to employment. The amazing part of their organization is that they not only offer life-changing opportunities for their clients, but also carry out large-scale manufacturing and production work.
Tonight, Kandu Inc is celebrating the kind of stories that they make possible. Stories like Sara’s:
Sara was referred to Kandu when she was 22 years old, from the Resettlement Employment Division of Bethany Christian Services. Sara, along with her mother and brother, were refugees of Nepalese descent who had spent 10 years in a refugee camp after escaping from Bhutan. Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese descent have been purged from Bhutan over the past 10 years, and most are unwelcome in Nepal. Sara, her brother, and mother ended up with terrible designation of “forced refugee status.”
After her refugee family was relocated to the U.S., Sara was referred to Kandu because she had significant barriers to employment. Deaf, uneducated, with no communication skills, and another terrible label of “profoundly disabled”, Sara was considered a “challenge”.
After several weeks at Kandu, Sara was able to begin some simple assembly tasks through watching others and learning to follow instructions through modified sign language. Kandu arranged for her to start learning ASL (American Sign Language) and connected her with several other hearing impaired employees who communicate through sign language, and we all began to see improvement.
During those first 2 months, Kandu was pursuing a major new contract for its medical device division, which involved manufacturing a military pressure bandage that is a part of every U.S. Military first aid kit. On the second day the engineers were setting up industrial sewing machines, Sara spotted the machines and people working on them, and literally ran across the shop to look. Through her smiles, excitement and motions, it became evident to the engineering crew that Sara knew what the machines were for… she sat down, threaded up the machine and began to sew… perfectly!
Sara knew how to sew! And she knew more than Kandu’s engineers about the machine adjustments and settings and how to produce the quality needed in a high-speed fashion. Over the next several weeks, through a variety of translators and research, Kandu discovered that the “disabled kids” from the refugee camps had been conscripted into factories while in Bhutan and that many of those factories produced clothing and uniforms. Not even Sara’s family knew she had this skill!
Several years have passed since Sara’s debut at Kandu, and she is now a full-time employee – the only employed person in her family. She not only works the line, but also does training. She even assists with a sewing class set up by Bethany for other refugees to develop employable skills for employment in the furniture industry in western Michigan.
For 60 years now, Kandu has been “Creating Opportunities” for people with disabilities and other employment barriers to develop their potential. Providing opportunities to experience the value and meaning of work with whatever potential a person has or develops. Kandu believes that is the right of every person they touch. Kandu serves over 1,200 people a year through training, placement in jobs in the community, or performing paid work at our manufacturing and assembly facilities.
Below is a picture of my dad and Sara cutting the ribbon for the opening of Kandu’s new medical device manufacturing area. I could not be more proud of my father and the incredible work his company is doing.